Photo in the News: Oldest-Ever Bee Found in Amber

Bee in amber photo
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October 25, 2006—This tiny, ancient insect has created an enormous buzz.

Melittosphex burmensis, which has been trapped in amber for the past hundred million years, is the oldest bee fossil ever discovered. It lived in northern Myanmar (Burma) in Southeast Asia about 35 million to 45 million years earlier than the next oldest specimens known to science.

The ancient bee shares some traits with its modern relatives but is also quite unlike any other known bee (honeybee photos, facts, more).

"The [previous] oldest bee fossils that we have are essentially fauna that are pretty much like modern groups that you could go out and collect today," said Bryan Danforth, associate professor of entomology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Danforth and colleague George Poinar of Oregon State University in Corvallis will report the find in the October 27 issue of the journal Science.

"What's very interesting about this fossil is that it isn't really attributable to any modern group that we can think of or any bee family that exists," Danforth said.

In fact, the diminutive insect, which is a mere 0.12 inch (2.95 millimeters) long, appears to have characteristics of both bees and wasps—and may even be a link between the two.

"This fossil may help us understand when wasps, which were mostly just carnivores, turned into bees that could pollinate plants and serve a completely different biological function," Poinar said in a press statement.

The find does come with one disappointing sting: The bee is a male. Because only female bees collect pollen, the fossil might not yield many clues about exactly how ancient bees pollinated plants.

But the fact that an ancestor of an important modern pollinator existed back then could help scientists explain the rapid expansion of floral diversity in the early to mid-Cretaceous (the Cretaceous period lasted between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago).

—Brian Handwerk

Editor's Note: Bryan Danforth has received National Geographic funding for the study of social behavior in African sweat bees in Kenya and South Africa.

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